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Realists and “Self-Described Realists”

John Cassidy is still under the mistaken impression that Obama is a realist:

Much like the decision to sustain America’s support for Egypt’s military after last year’s coup, they are another outgrowth of Obama’s realism—the label he lives by but remains reluctant to acknowledge [bold mine-DL].

There are many reasons to think this interpretation is wrong. I have madethispoint a few times already. It is true that some of Obama’s supporters and many of his hawkish detractors have tried to pin this label on him over the years, and occasionally Obama encouraged this by referring positively to the foreign policy record of the elder Bush, but this just reflects the degree to which the definition of the label has been expanded to include almost every internationalist who isn’t a knee-jerk interventionist. For what it’s worth, Obama appears to agree that he isn’t a realist. He made a point of distancing himself from foreign policy realists in his speech when he said this:

Today, according to self-described realists, conflicts in Syria or Ukraine or the Central African Republic are not ours to solve.

This isn’t entirely a caricature of the realist position, and I suspect most realists would agree that these conflicts are not “ours to solve.” Obviously they aren’t “ours” in that they are internal conflicts in other countries, and it’s far from clear that the U.S. could “solve” them even if it tried. Most realists would say that these conflicts are tangential to U.S. and allied security, and that the U.S. has little or nothing at stake in all of them, and they would be right. While Obama doesn’t distort the common realist view too much, he uses a phrase that is supposed to signal to the audience that he doesn’t consider himself to be the realist that others claim him to be. He refers to “self-described realists,” which is a phrase most often used by people that consider realists to be anything but realistic in their policy prescriptions. The point in tacking on the “self-described” modifier is to make clear that the speaker believes people that identify with this label hold flawed foreign policy views. This is the sort of thing that critics and enemies of foreign policy realists say. It’s not that surprising that Obama would say it, because he isn’t one and doesn’t consider himself to be one. He isn’t “reluctant” to acknowledge his inner realist–he is flatly rejecting attempts to identify him as one. He was using realists as a foil and a target in his speech, and he wanted to make it clear that he isn’t one of them.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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